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Observatory set to be ready next month SIUE looks to the stars

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Posted: Thursday, February 23, 2012 9:00 am

SIUE physics professor Jeff Sabby does not sleep much at night.

He is too busy working to get the newly constructed observatory, which sits roughly a quarter of a mile west-southwest of Prairie Hall, operational by as early as March.

Sabby wants the observatory to be able to take up to 400 to 500 clear crisp images of star systems every night, so he and SIUE astronomy students can see how star systems change over time.

Sabby, who has lobbied for an observatory since his arrival to SIUE in fall 2007, has raised $500,000 in grant support to furnish the structure, which will be used for research purposes as well as an instructional tool for astronomy students.

Grant sources for the project were American Astronomical Society, NASA, College of Arts and Sciences and Office of the Chancellor.

Physics Department Chair Abdullatif Hamad asked Sabby to write a proposal for the observatory to the College of Arts and Sciences dean at the time, Kent Neely, which he did during spring 2008.

The construction for the observatory building started fall 2010 and was finished last November.

Sabby still has some calibration work to perform on the $63,000 Ritchey-Chretien telescope before students, such as senior physics major Cody Dirks, of Petersburg, can use the observatory for class work.

Calibration work on the telescope includes using an excess of lengthy mathematical equations to set the telescope in the right position so it can take the best images of certain star systems.

Dirks, who has been assisting Sabby with the calibration work since last summer, will be using the observatory for his senior project, which focuses on the physical properties of a binary star system, such as mass and separation.

“We have got it calibrated pretty well to this point,” Dirks said. “We have to build a couple of small things for it, but it should be ready within the next month at the very latest.”

One thing Sabby said he has to build is a flat, or light box, which helps the telescope reference the images taken against the background sky.

“The light box filters out the dust, so we can take pictures of just the stars,” Dirks said.

Sabby said having students such as Dirks help with the construction of the 20-inch telescope enhances students’ learning experience in astronomy.

“The one thing Cody got out of [helping me with the telescope], hopefully, is he knows how to put these things together now,” Sabby said. “He could probably put that thing together now just as well as I could.”

Sabby, of Kenosha, Wis., said his love for physics stemmed from his grandfather, Harold Sabby, buying him astronomy books to read as an early teen.

“I shied away from it for a while,” Sabby said. “When you are in high school and stuff and start college, you want to be just about everything. For a while, I wanted to be an architect, and then I wanted to be a chemist. Then, I eventually decided to be in [astronomy].”

Sabby graduated in 1989 from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. with a bachelor’s degree in math and physics. He then continued on to earn his master’s degree in physics in 1994.

When Sabby started his doctorate in physics at U of A, his thesis adviser Claud Lacy, the U of A Physics Department chair, presented him with his toughest challenge yet.

Sabby said he had to retrieve a source code for a charged couple device camera, developed by Santa Barbara Instrumental Group of California, or he would not receive his doctorate degree.

A CCD camera is used to record data from images the telescope takes.

He passed the test after the company decided it did not need the information anymore.

“He was a good worker,” Lacy said. “He stuck to it, and he got better about finishing things on time as time went on.”

Sabby and Lacy also helped construct an    observatory that houses a 10-inch telescope at U of A in 2003 before Sabby received his doctorate in 2004.

Sabby said it took Lacy and him 18 months to get the U of A telescope automated to where it was running on its own without human interference.

The SIUE observatory is not yet automated, Sabby said, meaning he has to control it on- or off-site.

“I could not even tell you how long it is going to take to get it automated,” Sabby said. “On a telescope, there are many different parts that have to communicate to one another. At the time that [astrophysicist Neil deGrasse] Tyson came here [in November], those parts were not communicating with one another. But during the Christmas break, I was able to get all the parts to talk to one another and actually play nice.”

Those parts, which have artificial intelligence that operate them, consist of the observatory’s dome, the telescope mount and the telescope itself. Sabby said the CCD camera, which is attached to the telescope, also plays a part in communicating to the other pieces of equipment.

This communication between the integral parts of the observatory is a step towards automation, according to Sabby.

While Sabby has worked tirelessly to make the observatory functional for research and educational purposes, his colleagues know his efforts are paying off.

“He did what we expected him to do [when he came to SIUE],” Hamad said. “He exceeded the expectations. He worked very hard on this project. We really appreciate all the efforts he put in there, and we hope, since it is almost up and ready, that it will be a very good addition to the Physics Department and SIUE in terms of scholarly activities and in terms of involving students.”

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